The Tough Stuff: Top Ten Tuesday

May 14, 2013 Coming of Age, Contemporary Fiction, Frightening, Memoirs, Non Fiction, Psychological, Tear Jerkers, Top Ten Tuesday, Young Adult Fiction 59

Hola Bookworms,

Today is another Tuesday, and another GLORIOUS list, the topic of which was provided by The Broke and The Bookish. Today’s topic is to list out books that deal with difficult subject matter, and the ones I’m choosing are all kind of a downer. That doesn’t mean they aren’t BRILLIANT books, because they are. It just means that they’re emotionally draining, so, you know, don’t read them all in a row.

TTT3W1. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. This book is amazing, but such a tough read. Speak is about a girl entering high school. She is date raped at a party, and while she calls the police to break up the party, she can’t bring herself to tell the authorities what happened to her. She starts her high school career as the narc who ruined the best party of the summer all while dealing with the emotional hurricane of attending school with her rapist. It’s a rough read, but really worth it. I highly recommend it.

2. The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Race and incest and violent relationships and homosexuality and secrets and lies and children and turning gender roles upside down… It’s pretty amazing. It’s exceptionally powerful because it’s written in an epistolary format in a regional dialect. Try to get through it without crying. I dare you.

3. Room by Emma Donoghue. This choice seems even more appropriate now given the news coming out of Cleveland of the three women held captive in a home for a decade. Room is about a young woman who is abducted from her college campus parking lot. She is locked in an inescapable sound-proof shed and regularly raped by her captor. Eventually these systematic rapes result in a successful pregnancy and she raises her little boy, Jack, in this shed. Jack is five and he narrates the book. I think this was a brilliant choice on Donoghue’s part, because hearing this horror story through the eyes of “Ma” would probably have been too much to bear. The innocent goggles of a child make things tragic and yet, in a way, hopeful.

Don't let the colorful cover fool you, this is NOT for the faint of heart.

4. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. Teenagers with cancer! Watching mere children face down their own mortality won’t tear at your very soul or anything. Young love cut tragically short by disease won’t make you bawl your eyes out. Living with a debilitating illness that is slowly eating your body from the inside when you should be out shopping for prom dresses and going through your angsty phase in giant baggy pants won’t mar your psyche! So heartbreaking. So good.

5. Smoke Over Birkenau by Liana Millu. Talk about the tough stuff. It simply does not get any “tougher” than books about the Holocaust. There are a lot of books on the subject, and I’ve read a number of heart wrenching personal accounts. It’s difficult to pick just one, but since I really have to pace myself on reading these (so I don’t get overwhelmed by humanity’s ability to inflict horror on itself for incredibly stupid reasons) I thought it might be overkill to fill this list with Holocaust books.

6. Every Last One by Anna Quindlen. Whooo boy this one’s a doozie. Depressed teenagers. Eating disorders. Young love denied. Unbelievable acts of violence. Dealing with the aftermath. This is a draining read, but it’s really well done. Sure, it feels a bit like you’re being stabbed in the heart with a dull spoon, but it’s a good pain. It’s NOT a true story, thank God. At least you can tell yourself that when you’re sobbing into your pillow…


7. Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. I don’t care how open and honest and cool you are with your kids. It is awkward as heck to discuss periods with your prepubescent daughter (this, coming of course, from a former prepubescent daughter. The thought of having this conversation with my own offspring makes me preemptively uncomfortable.) Thank GOD for Judy Blume. Thank GOD for this book. That GOD it existed when I was 12. Margaret made all the late bloomers out there feel less alone. Thank you, Judy Blume, for being awesome.

8. Still Alice by Lisa Genova. Yeah, it’s tough to be a teenager, Margaret, but it’s even tougher to be an adult with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. As you follow Alice’s mental decline you feel her frustrations and her anguish, as well as her moments of hope and triumph. It’s a beautifully rendered story, and it will make you keenly aware of your own precarious mental state. You may want to order a lot of fish oil caplets or whatever antioxidant thingies they have on the market today that are supposed to help keep your brain going strong to old age and beyond…

still alice

9. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. What would you do if the most basic part of your identity, your biological gender, were called into question? Our protagonist is raised as a female but due to a gene mutation, she’s biologically male… At least, mostly. A coming of age story with the added bonus of some sweet historical fiction elements plus all the psychological turmoil that goes on when a person doesn’t fall neatly into a gender category. Powerful.

10. Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. Forget everything you saw in that movie. I don’t care if it won Angelina Jolie an Oscar, the book was MUCH better. It’s Susanna Kaysen’s true life account of her time in a mental hospital. I read this a long time ago, but there was one part that seriously resonated with me. Kaysen described her descent into crippling depression as the world slowing down and time crawling by. She said that there were two ways to go crazy- for everything to slow down or for everything to speed up. I’ve always thought that if I ever needed to be institutionalized, it would be due to the super fast worst-case-scenario in flashes of horror kind of crazy, at which point my brain would completely short circuit and the slow would set it. It probably says a little too much about me and my mental state that I’ve given this so much thought, but you know. I’m bad at lying.

So Bookworms, tell me. What are your top picks for books that deal with the tough stuff? I’m all ears (at least until my psychotic break, but I think we’ve got some time.)

59 Responses to “The Tough Stuff: Top Ten Tuesday”

  1. Shana London

    The toughest book I ever read is “PUSH” by Sapphire. I read it in my last semester of college for an adolescent literature class, and I have to say that it was one of the hardest assignments of my college career. It tells the story of a girl who is sexually abused by both of her parents, and becomes a Mother as a result, all while trying to get an education so she can have a different life than her own Mother. I cried daily while reading it. I had a professor approach me in the hallway one day while I was reading it, and ask me what I thought of the book. I told him it was intense and sad and horrifying and that it made me question everything I thought I knew about what abuse looked like. He told me he had avoided reading it for that very reason. So, it is definitely a game-changer.

      • Shana London

        I think I had such a strong reaction to it because I work with children. But aside from the subject, it is a very well written book! I just had to hug “my kids” extra hard every day while reading it 🙂

  2. Mark Justin

    Hi Katie,

    My all time favorite book that deals with tough stuff is “Night” by Elie Weisel.

    • Words for Worms

      You know, that very nearly made the list. I was torn about including more than one book on the Holocaust. I read Night on your recommendation, and it was powerful.

  3. Ashley F

    Oh God, Speak, Room and Still Alice ripped my guts out. Add on to the list, The Glass Castle and The Lovely Bones.

  4. Zen A.

    Room and The Fault in Our Stars were such heartbreaking books. The latter actually made me cry, which doesn’t happen often when I’m reading. Other books I found really painful were Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

    • Words for Worms

      I watched part of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but I’m sure the movie doesn’t do the book justice. I’ll have to add it to my list!

  5. Nishita

    I think Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer is a good candidate for this list. It’s about a boy mourning the death of his father in the 9-11 attacks.

  6. Liesel Hill

    I really need to read Room and the Fault in Our Stars. I hear such great things about them. The Color Purple is a good one. And I kinda want to read Girl, Interrupted now. I really wanted to like the film but kind of…didn’t. Great picks. 😀
    My TTT

  7. therelentlessreader

    This is a fantastic list! I am so drawn to tough books like this. I don’t know why. Maybe it makes me feel better about my own life?

    I haven’t read all of the books on your list. The ones I haven’t are now firmly on my wish list!

    • Words for Worms

      Ha! I’m so glad I’ll have a hand in destroying your psyche :). I know, I’m drawn to these too. Some of the best writing comes out of tackling the devastating topics!

  8. PinotNinja

    The Room. Wow. It completely knocked me on my butt. It was so horrific that I could barely stand to read it, yet I also couldn’t stop. And The Fault In Our Stars made me cry hysterically at the end, even though, really, it was not a surprise at all. I immediately read it a second time and still cried my eyes out even though the ending was not at all a surprise that time around.

    Carmac McCarthy’s The Road gave me nightmares the entire time I was reading it. I’m still haunted by trying to figure out whether the family that took in the boy at the end were really the “good guys” as they claimed.

    • Words for Worms

      I won’t allow myself to think that the family at the end of The Road aren’t the “good guys.” I couldn’t handle that. They’re just nice people with kids taking in an orphan. Now I shall put my hands over my ears, shut my eyes, and sing, “LALALALALALLALALAAAAAAAAAAAAAA”

  9. Rory

    I do enjoy feeling like my heart is being stabbed with a dull spoon. Okay, not really.

    I liked that you included Judy Blume, it breaks up the heartbreak. Personally The Pact by Jodi Picoult broke my heart, I haven’t read anything by her since then – I found it that devastating. And I’ll never read another book about kids with cancer thank to TFiOS (no guarantees on that).

    • Words for Worms

      The Pact by Jodi Picoult was the book that turned me off to Jodi Picoult! I was so upset by the whole thing. WHY DIDN’T EMILY SEE A COUNSELOR?!?! It just seemed to avoidable and… GAH.

  10. Leigh Kendall

    I read Room over the course of just one weekend – a compelling read. I loved Jack’s innocent narration – it really would have been too much otherwise. I’d like too add The Road by Cormac McCarthy to the list. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, it follows a father and his son. It could be really depressing, but the beautiful prose and well-observed relationship between father and son prevent that.

    • Words for Worms

      I LOVED The Road. Haunting and awesome. It’s made so many of my Top Ten Tuesdays I thought I’d give the apocalypse a rest for a while, but I completely agree. Fabulousness!

  11. Michelle

    I think the Glass Castle is really good and i am so happy Jennifer Lawrence is gonna play it soon! I am reading Every Last One now recommended by you previously and I cant put it down so far… 🙂

    • Words for Worms

      The book was excellent. The movie less so. Talk about leaving out the important stuff. Was Lindsey’s boyfriend Sam even IN the movie? He was very important!

  12. lostinliterature108

    Of Mice and Men…… Just a lot of badness…….and madness…….and sadness.

  13. Lori

    I read Room for a book club and it was WAY out of my comfort zone! I think it may be my least favorite book ever. Rape, incest, molestation are subjects I can’t stomach throughout an entire book. I’m not afraid of tough subjects but some things I just don’t want to know about.
    When I was in junior high school, in English class, a classmate gave an oral book report on “Are you there God, it’s me Margaret?” She said the word “period” out loud! In front of boys! Our teacher was male! She wasn’t embarrassed but I nearly died.

    • Words for Worms

      I hid the book under my pillow. I didn’t want anyone to know I was reading it. I was SO horrified by all womanly things. I nearly passed out in a bra aisle once because I saw someone there. I don’t mean someone I know, just a middle aged woman who had every right to be bra shopping. And I had to have my mom buy my monthly supplies for at least a year or two before I stopped being mortified.

  14. Daddio

    Diary of Ann Frank and Schindlers List. I don’t think I can bring myself to read any that are on your list. Dealing with tough subjects as they come along in life is just fine for me. My Ostrich Man suit is at the tailor being let out (sob, again).

  15. Samantha

    I’ve read The Color Purple and Middlesex, although it’s been a long time since I’ve read The Color Purple. The Lovely Bones kind of changed my perspective, honestly, made me think more about how much we take people for granted, and made me think about death in a way I hadn’t wanted to or had avoided before. It’s a hard read, but it’s good, a lot better than i thought it was, from all the hype.

    • Words for Worms

      I actually found the Lovely Bones had kind of an uplifting view of death… Susie’s heaven wasn’t a bad place to be, and once she really moves on, it’s pretty wonderful.

  16. Megan M.

    Wow. These are tough! I love a good book that makes me cry, but some of them I avoid because I’m afraid they’ll make me TOO upset. I loved Speak, TFiOS, Every Last One, and Girl, Interrupted. I read the book and then took my friends to the movie as one of my birthdays and it was kind of a letdown.

    I can’t take stories with ambiguous endings. It makes me so upset. Like at the end of Inception my husband tried to ask me what I thought about it and I was too upset to even talk (then he explained the clues to me and I felt better. LOL) so I won’t be reading The Road!

    Atonement. The book and the movie. I couldn’t explain the plot to my friend without crying. Luckily she’s used to my crazy.

    • Words for Worms

      I forgot about Atonement! That book made me nuts! I was so angry, but I couldn’t be angry because she was a little girl and thought she was doing the right thing, but then… Just… Ugh. I get it.

  17. Jen and Tonic

    The Room is so good! I honestly cannot encourage people enough to read this book. I agree, the narration choice was brilliant.

    Have you read We Need to Talk About Kevin? It’s about a mother who struggles to figure out why her son went off the deep end, and killed several of his classmates. Oddly, I finished reading this shortly before the Newtown tragedy. Excellent book.

    • Words for Worms

      We Need To Talk About Kevin has come up as a book club suggestion a couple of times, but for whatever reason never ends up being selected. Probably because I’m the only non parent in that particular book club and none of the other members want to imagine their children turning into murderers unexpectedly… I should give it a shot…

  18. Jennine G.

    I’ve read many of those and it so sad that much of it happens in real life. A book that’s not on this list but would top them all is “A Stolen Life” by Jaycee Dugard. She was kidnapped in 1991 at age 11 and did not get free until 2009 at age 29 and she tells her story in this book. (It sounds like “Push” mentioned above would be about its equal.) I have an 11 year-old so I ended up leaving the book at work because I couldn’t bear to have it in my house. It will make you sick. I have never had a book I couldn’t finish and this one I almost didn’t. I swapped it online as soon as I finished it.

  19. Rick Wiedeman

    For me, it’s the Autobiography of Malcolm X, which is not an autobiography, but was written by Alex Haley. It made me hate white people, briefly. (And I am one.)

  20. The Greedy Reader

    The book that springs to my mind is one I read as a child, The Exodus, by Leon Uris. It deals with the agonies and extreme hardships faced by the Jews for the formation of Israel. I remember weeping like somebody had died and scaring the life out of my mom in the process ! The main protagonist, Ari Ben Canaan has remained one of my favourites ever since 🙂

  21. jchurchi

    Read Bridge to Terabithia in the third grade. Dealing with the death of your best friend in elementary school. bawled my eyes out. First book to ever make me cry.

    Read We Need to Talk about Kevin. Written from the prospective of the mother of a student who goes on a killing spree in a school.

Talk to me, Bookworms!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.